With many millions more people connected to broadband and the time differences for the 2008 Olympics it is no surprise to see that people were switching to online viewing to catch up with their favourite sports. One would normally expect broadband usage to drop off during August with millions heading off for their annual holidays, but broadband providers are reporting significant spikes in usage.
Timico has highlighted the 24% increase in usage they observed during the Olympics. In addition to having Quality of Service (QoS) measures in place, the provider had anticipated a rise in usage and had ordered extra capacity in time so that the rise in demand was met.
Plusnet is another provider that has gone on the record with details of what they saw in terms of usage during the Olympics. In their community blog item, Dave Tomlinson discusses the amount of traffic they saw. With the traffic monitoring and management systems Plusnet have in place they are able to identify BBC iPlayer traffic, and suggest that the the normal iPlayer usage for Plusnet is around 300Mbps, with shows like Doctor Who spiking to 500Mbps. The Olympics however created a spike of 950Mbps. In terms of viewers this is a drop in the ocean compared to those using traditional TV representing only around 2,000 viewers but use of broadband to catch-up on TV content is only likely to increase.
The National Grid has had years of learning to cope with oddities like the surge in power as people switch kettles on as the EastEnders credits run. The advantage they have is that hydro-electric stations can be brought online to feed power into the grid very quickly. For broadband providers there is generally no quick fix as usage patterns have to be predicted weeks or months in advance. For providers using unbundled networks the situation is often simpler as ensuring there is always lots of spare capacity is cheaper, and in some cases providers have built networks to cope with many millions of users but only have a fraction of that on their network. For providers using BT Wholesale IPStream products the bumpy road towards WBC and WMBC with support for ADSL2+ will offer the chance to take spikes in traffic but with a cost penalty.
UK broadband infrastructure is some years away from being able to support millions watching the same show all at slightly different start times. This problem is not just a UK one, the basic premise of consumer broadband worldwide is that it is cheap because it is a shared medium and relies on not too many downloading/streaming at the same time. The old fashioned video recorder largely replaced by the personal video recorder (PVR) is still a very efficient way of catching up on TV, where the online services work is for times when you forget to set the PVR to record a show. When a popular TV show can have its audience measured in millions, one must question the amount of money being invested in online catch-up services, and whether it would be better spent on producing better content, or improving the quality of the picture broadcast to millions.